[I posted an early version of a Cum Laude speech last fall. It was a fragment of a speech I abandoned for another. As we have two of these ceremonies each year, I revisited it for the most recent induction ceremony although I changed its original direction completely. I have been thinking recently about how members of a community are connected to each other, and I decided to try to say something about the value of connection in the talk that follows.]
What is the purpose of your education if not for others, for those you love, for the communities in which you will live? Achievement, like that which we recognize and celebrate this evening, is not an end unto itself nor would it be worth celebrating if it was accomplished for yourself alone. Achievement is only truly valuable when it prepares you to give it back somehow through the contributions you make and the life you lead.
Last Fall I went to my twenty-fifth college reunion.
I distinctly remember alumni weekends when I was in college when a bunch of old folks would roll into town and onto campus. To me, most of these people seemed goofy, hyper-nostalgic, and awkward. They walked around campus as if they were getting used to gravity again after a long time spent in space. They seemed uptight, they often laughed too loud, and many talked too much. They were like some strange breed of five-year cicadas that showed up to make everyone uncomfortable for a brief time before disappearing again.
Recognizing that my undergraduate feelings toward this crowd of alumni were far less than generous, I see now that I was in dire need of some sort of attitude adjustment about these good people who cleared their calendars just so they could return to a place, their college, their alma mater, that held such powerful and lasting meaning to them—and time has provided me just such an attitude adjustment, time has likely provided it for your parents, and the smart money says that time will provide it for you. The adjustment is centered in this: given that life is hard, yet endlessly rich with challenge and possibility, we each need passion and humility to endure and to excel. Just as importantly, perhaps even more importantly, however, we need each other…we need connection.
In my Junior English Course we read the play W;t by Atlanta playwright and teacher, Margaret Edson. The protagonist and narrator of the play, Dr. Vivian Bearing, is a literature professor, a world-renowned scholar of John Donne’s poetry, who is faced with a terminal illness. As the illness progresses, she becomes more and more aware of the fact that she has built a life without the sustaining connections necessary to support her in her time of greatest need. While her health deteriorates, she reflects on her past coldness to her students, as well as her lack of any generosity of spirit, and she begins to feel pangs of regret. She has not given support to others, nor has she valued it, and as a result she is not able to receive support (at least until the very end). For me the most powerful moment is when she becomes particularly sick after a treatment, and she has to call a cab to take her to the hospital, as she had no one to call that might drive her. Dr. Bearing is to some degree a Scrooge-like character who faces her own ghosts in a difficult moment of trial though the difference is that, as opposed to Scrooge, her self-recognition comes too late for her to make a redeeming reentry into the community of humankind she has neglected for so long.
Though she finds some peace at the very end, Vivian Bearing’s story is a cautionary tale, and her example warns us of lives lived with high walls built around us. In her professional life she accumulated achievements, and treated them as if they had meaning unto themselves when in fact this approach sells the highest purpose of our achievements and our education far short. We can do better, and we can think bigger…but we need to value connection with others in order to meet that high purpose head-on. Gaining an education, one marked by hard work and challenge, one marked by deep engagement and a love of ideas and learning is not a selfish pursuit, for the beneficiaries of that process are likely to be in our families, or they may sit in our literature class, or they may live in our neighborhoods, perhaps our city, maybe our state. Indeed the fruits of our educations may extend one day to benefit people around the world, people whom we will never meet.
During my college reunion, in addition to feeling old, I found myself renewing my admiration for many of my classmates. I noted how many of them were living lives of engagement and contribution, how many were selfless leaders in their communities. I noted how many were the friends you want to have in the moments of triumph and of defeat that inevitably mark the calendars of our lives. I also noted how the connection we have maintained over the years has a sustaining purpose. Staying in touch, staying connected can seem somewhat trite, but it is indeed anything but trite. Our connection to others makes our lives meaningful, makes our struggles a bit more manageable, and these connections reveal the purposefulness that should underpin our striving for academic achievement. Becoming educated inherently includes the demand that we learn not to see ourselves as living in a vacuum, but rather that we see ourselves as inextricably linked to one another. The high purpose of that education is to make the world within our reach better for our presence. This high purpose includes as well the demand that wherever we bring our minds, we must bring our hearts as well.
So congratulations to our inductees on this admirable achievement. You have done extraordinary work to be here tonight, and we are proud of what you have accomplished so far. And… when you find yourself at Homecoming looking at those goofy, hyper-nostalgic, and awkward long ago graduates of your college or university, please have some patience with them and try not to judge them too harshly. Thank you.